Teaching the hobbyist

My mom – 100% Italian, like me – has been studying English for a few years. She has followed the usual routine: group classes, grammar and pronunciation exercises, writing down new words and trying to remember them by sheer force of will – the vast majority of the time unsuccessfully. Despite focus, effort, and discipline, she was not improving much. This does not come as a surprise; we can look back at our high school years and guess how many of our classmates have learned a new language to reasonable proficiency – say, being able to hold a non-technical conversation that goes beyond explaining how to go from here to there with fewer than two turns – by following the learning diet described above: between almost nobody and nobody.

Since I have been spending quite some time in Italy and I have been hearing her cries for help a few too many times, I decided to take matters into my own hands and teach my mother some English. If you are wondering why my help came so late, it's because experience has taught me that teaching is much more effective when there is a certain distance between teacher and student. Parent and progeny are far from being distant enough; in the eyes of your parents, you will always be one-foot tall.

Nevertheless, I have some decent credentials. First, I have teaching experience across several fields: I taught graduate courses in ecology and statistical modeling in my Ph.D. and post-doc years, I’ve done some personal training, I currently teach a weekly Brazilian jiu-jitsu class, and I mentored a few junior colleagues when I was doing academic research. I also quite enjoy teaching, and I am not naïve anymore; I have learned the hard way that teaching beginners is hard. We tend to forget how little we knew when we started learning, and we need to change our perspective from knowing a lot to only a little or nothing. And it can be quite frustrating – do I really have to repeat the same thing for the fiftieth time?

Second, I have also remained a student myself, learning quite a few things to reasonable proficiency, and picking up a fair number of lessons along the way. I have acquired both English and Spanish, mostly on my own; I have gotten closer and closer to what I consider the measure of reasonable proficiency in Brazillian Jiu Jitsu – a black belt keeping the gi closed; I can code using a few different programming languages; when I was younger I picked up guitar (poorly, but that is another lesson in itself), and I see myself spending a few frustrating years later on in life trying to draw houses that don't look like shoeboxes with in front something rectangular resembling a window.

After four weeks of the new teaching approach, my mom's English improved quite a bit. I applied some of the lessons I learned, and I got some new perspective on teaching the hobbyist, who is someone who is learning mostly for the sake of it, not a professional student or an intellectual worker, who is frequently asking whether it would be better just to give up, forget about it, and watch some cooking shows instead – that's what I do sometimes too.

My experience and study of literature on teaching and learning told me that – hobbyist or professional – to learn something as challenging as a foreign language we need to: (1) spend a lot of time (2) doing activities that are effective for reaching our goal. It is also rare that actions that are effective for learning are not efficient (they consume less time and fewer resources for a unit of improvement) at the same time.

I will explain what I did to facilitate my mom's learning of the English language. There will be quite a bit of overlap between (1) and (2) in my description, but let's start with point (1), that is "spending a lot of time".

It takes time to learn a foreign language. If we look at the approximate learning expectations compiled by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State, it takes on average 23-24 weeks (575-600 class hours) to achieve Speaking level 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3) and General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3), in languages that are the most cognate with English, for example Dutch, Afrikaans, Spanish, and Italian. We can assume that the expectation for the reverse (Italian to English) is the same. There are also further bad news:

Students at the Foreign Service Institute are typically 30-40 years old, are native speakers of English with a good aptitude for formal language study, plus knowledge of one or more other foreign languages. They study in small classes of usually no more than 6. Their schedule calls for 25 hours of class per week with 3-4 hours per day of self-study.

So, if it takes people who are trained by professionals in professional settings, have strong motivation, are cognitively in good shape, and already know other foreign languages that much time to learn a foreign language, imagine how long it will take a hobbyist who is out of shape learning-wise and has little talent for foreign languages. After you have guessed the time, add one year.

It follows that first one needs to keep up the motivation – that is, the desire or willingness to study and practice – amid setbacks, sadness, gloomy feelings of improvements being too slow, too sporadic, too few. And to make it even more challenging, those feelings often go hand-in-hand with a plethora of self-defeating thoughts, such as: I am not smart enough, I do not deserve to see my efforts wasted, I will never be able to ask for directions to the nearest pub in London even if my life depended on it.

As Dave Adler writes in "The Pressure Principle" (a great book I plan to review), you can always get better at the margins of your performance/skills, that is at the very limit of what you can do. But you should keep in mind that working at the margins inevitably causes angst and frustration – we struggle, we often fail and only occasionally succeed –, and improvements are mostly non-linear. For quite a long time – days or even weeks – the performance, say, asking questions in the past tense in English, is clumsy, leaving the hobbyist full of doubts (should I use did or should? What about the third person singular? Is there an equivalent of does for the past tense? Why not?). Then, almost magically, the student gets it and internalizes the structure of the question! And then they get a bit worse, then a bit better, and so on.

In practice, when I teach, I strive to recognize that working at the margins is emotionally tough and I do my best to commend the consistent effort instead of the less predictable – in timing and magnitude – results. They will come. I make the student work at the margins frequently (every day if possible), but briefly (15-20 minutes tops) and I finish the teaching session on a positive note, scaling back to something less challenging if needed. If you think about your vacations, the last day disproportionately colors the whole ten days away. Always strive to finish on a high note and cheat (scale back) if needed.

Let's have a look at what the hobbyist should spend a lot of time on. There is abundant literature on what works for learning, though it would seem many teachers never take the time to look at it:

  • spaced repetition;
  • an appropriate level of difficulty (working at the margins and within the margins, not beyond the margins – do not work on Rachmaninoff if you can barely play Beethoven);
  • testing (gives you immediate feedback) instead of re-studying (beware of the illusion of fluency);
  • interleaving different types of material;
  • that we learn more when learning appears to be difficult and slow (because working at the margins causes angst, frustration, and improvements are non-linear).

I bet you were rarely, if ever, doing any of the above activities in high school. And I bet you barely remember anything you were supposed to learn at the time and keep with you forever. "How We Learn" and "Made To Stick" summarize most of our understanding of the learning process and the most effective learning and teaching tools and strategies. "The Pressure Principle" also has useful insights into the illusion of fluency, accountability, and other more practical tactics, such as the maximum number of repetitions one should perform consecutively before shaking things up. Too many repetitions in a row lead to mindlessness and a less-than-exceptional commitment to the task. Keep in mind that most of the above activities, along with spending a lot of time studying and practicing for some thousands of hours, can also be found in the "deliberate practice" proposed by Anders Ericsson. Individual tutoring and mastery training (students must master a topic before moving on to another one) also appear to almost miraculously speed learning up (see Bloom's 2 sigma problem). However, while mastery training can be very valuable for the school student, I believe it can make the hobbyist give up on learning because they can barely see what's at the end of the journey for far too long.

In practice, that's how I have been teaching:

  • Anki for spaced repetition. Look at this gem of an article if you want to learn more about it. It can be boring at times, but spaced repetition works. I use it too. 15-20 minutes a day, not more than that. Do too much and the risk of burning out is too high.
  • Focus on delivering information first, skip elegance and depth. Not "I feel like I would like to eat something", but "I am hungry". 
  • Make it work first, then be precise – let them feel that they can somewhat express themselves, it is a game of confidence and of keeping up the motivation. As an example, "must", "have to", "ought to" have slightly different meanings, but to keep things simple, just use "have to" for now. Action first, precise action later.
  • Let the student frequently come up with their own questions and examples and doubts. They already speak a language, they "just" need to express similar thoughts in another language.  
  • Interleave and frequently test, with the purpose of making the student internalize the structure while avoiding the dreaded "paralysis by analysis".
  • Read, listen, write, speak, do everything at the same time and with constant feedback, but only after the student has struggled on their own. It has been shown that struggling greatly increases the rate of learning.

Let me finish with an example and with the most important piece of information I think one should get from this post.

My mom had problems with the use of "went", the past tense of the verb "to go". Mostly due to the phonetic similarity of "went" and "were" and "when", which typically go at the beginning at the question, she was using strange structures such as "Went you go to the gym?". It could have been "Did you go to the gym" or "When are you going to the gym?" or "Were you going to the gym?". How to make her understand the correct structure first and then internalize the structure and make it stable, which means be confident that she will consistently use the proper structure? First, I make sure she understands, at least in theory, the structure of the question she wants to ask. Then, I test and retest (how would you ask me whether I washed the dishes yesterday night?), interleaving the tests with other question that are unrelated to the structure we are mainly focusing on (please describe what you are going to do tonight). She then has to struggle to go back to the structure we are working on when I test it again. Then I wait for the inevitable follow-up questions from her (how should I ask you how you went to the gym?), and we start again from there.

And finally, this is what I believe is the most crucial piece of information one should get from this post, in part inspired by the "The Pressure Principle" and my own experience. Frequently communicating – to ourselves and others – that working at the margins causes angst and frustration and that improvements are often non-linear, makes a tremendous difference in the motivation of the student. A positive (it's hard but worthwhile and satisfying), realistic (it will take a long time to become proficient) mindset that is moving with enthusiasm and energy toward achievement instead of away from fear makes all the difference between giving up and going on. The achievement mindset changes the struggle from a place of fear and disappointment to a place of pride and willingness to put oneself out there. Try it next time.